Tobacco usage among women not a new issue in India, says Tobacco Cessation Centre, Adyar Cancer Institute

On World No Tobacco Day observed here on Monday, the World Health Organization issued a call to specially spotlight the ill-effects of tobacco on girls and women.

E. Vidhubala, Tobacco Cessation Centre, Adyar Cancer Institute, says tobacco usage among women is not a new issue in India. “Tobacco use, especially chewing tobacco, has been going on for ages in our rural areas and it is pretty common,” she adds. In fact, for a number of older women in the community, the “vethalai potti” (betel leaf box), which also contains wads of tobacco, came as part of their dowry. “Some of them are so proud of their boxes, they treat them almost like jewel boxes. They do not seem to understand that it could be dangerous for them.”

While a lot of women do not come to the TCC, the team goes out to the community to speak to the women. “We have found that the women resist our attempts to coax them out of the habit. For some of them, it is an act of rebellion, and others, the habit has been handed down,” Ms. Vidhubala says.

She rationalises that the reason for the gender focus this year is because a number of young women and urban girls are taking up smoking and chewing of tobacco. Also, tobacco companies have started aggressively marketing to women, she adds.

“We know that tobacco advertising increasingly targets girls,” said Ala Awan, WHO Assistant Director-General for Non Communicable Diseases and Mental Health, in a release. “This campaign calls attention to the tobacco industry's attempts to market its deadly products by associating tobacco use with beauty and liberation.”

Prassanna Kannan, State consultant, Tobacco Free Initiative, says women comprise about 20 per cent of the world's more than 1 billion smokers. WHO statistics show tobacco use is growing among women globally. As per the Global Youth Tobacco Survey 2009, the prevalence of tobacco use among 13 to 15-year-old-schoolchildren is 14.6 per cent, with 19 per cent boys and 8.3 per cent girls consuming tobacco in some form.

According to the National Family Health Survey-3 data, 11 per cent of women in India use some form of tobacco, out of which only 1.6 per cent are smokers, the rest being chewers. Over 8.5 per cent of ante-natal mothers in India are tobacco users.

S. Elango, State president, Indian Public Health Association, says in Tamil Nadu three per cent of women use tobacco, with 60 per cent of them using the chewable form.

Tobacco influences the health of adolescent girls, affecting their hormonal balance, menstrual problems, infertility, premature delivery and low birth weight babies.

Ms. Kannan adds that women and children are silent victims of second-hand smoke. Already, the State Tobacco Control Cell is running awareness programmes among schoolchildren as part of the School Health programme. They are taught to persuade the men and women in the family to give up their smoking habit. Women self-help groups have been roped into awareness generation and, hopefully, will come to play a larger role in preventing youngsters from picking up the habit.

Dr. Elango suggests that funds that have been received from the Bloomberg Foundation to work towards smoke-free Chennai should be utilised to spread awareness, especially among young girls in urban centres.